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An emergency preparedness wake-up call

Are universities properly preparing their people for when something goes wrong on campus?


Quebec unions are asking colleges and universities to be better prepared to handle campus emergencies. Institutions have emergency plans in place, but faculty and staff don’t always have proper emergency response training.

On Nov. 11 last year, two CEGEPs went on lockdown for a few hours following reports of suspicious or armed individuals on campus. Although terrifying, the situations were resolved peacefully. Unfortunately, that’s not always how things play out. In Quebec, for example, many people still remember the 1989 massacre of 14 young women at École Polytechnique in Montreal as well as the Dawson College shooting in 2006, which left one person dead and nearly 20 injured.

More recent gun-related incidents have occurred in other provinces as well. Acadia University in Nova Scotia was on lockdown for a few hours this past January after a man allegedly flashed a gun. And the University of Ottawa campus was closed tight during the shooting on Parliament Hill in 2014. Other campuses in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and British Columbia have also temporarily gone on lockdown in response to similar threats.

Is preparedness a problem?

One would think the people working at these institutions would be trained for these scenarios. Not necessarily. “Higher education institutions in Quebec are required to have an emergency plan, but all too often, staff aren’t familiar with it and there’s still not enough training,” said Valérie Fontaine, president of the Fédération du personnel de soutien de l’enseignement supérieur (FPSES-CSQ). She detailed the problem last November in a co-signed open letter asking campuses to offer practical emergency response training.

“In 2019, Quebec passed a law requiring educational institutions to organize training activities around sexual violence, and we want the government to do the same for emergency preparedness,” she explained.

Few institutions have committed to providing such training thus far. Ms. Fontaine said some administrators are concerned that emergency drills will stoke stress and anxiety on campus. The cost of doing these exercises and the fact that there’s so much turnover among students may also be deterrents.

Gabriel Cormier, vice-president of administration and human resources at Université de Moncton, said the institution has emergency plans covering different situations but doesn’t provide specific training other than fire drills. “We’re looking at making some training mandatory for staff, but given how many staff members and students there are, I don’t think it would be feasible to do exercises for every possible emergency,” he said.

The university relies primarily on a communication system that includes posters around campus and a mobile app that can be used to report an emergency or send urgent campus-wide messages.

Université de Montréal launched a campaign in the wake of the Nov. 11 lockdowns to educate people on what to do in an emergency. The university also plans to conduct an email campaign with staff in the fall and with students at the start of each term.

New training programs

Collège Ahuntsic, a CEGEP in Montreal, also changed its approach after the events of Nov. 11. “The staff and unions asked us to offer targeted training so they’ll be ready if something were to happen,” said communications adviser Sophie Beauregard. “We’re working with a specialized firm to hold a training seminar for all faculty and staff.”

The entire CEGEP community will have access to online tutorials and new hires will be required to take online training. “It’s important to train them up as soon as they start because you never know when an emergency could strike,” said Ms. Beauregard.

This is the first time the CEGEP has offered training other than fire drills. The course has already been given twice (in December and January) and covers the two key strategies in any emergency situation: run and barricade. The CEGEP also trains “floor managers” to take the lead in an emergency – by ensuring that everyone evacuates, for example.

Teaming up

The University of Alberta has a crisis management team with about 40 positions and tries to have two or three people in each role. That way, if someone can’t do their part in an emergency, someone else can step in. And everyone on the team is eligible for training. “We offer three levels of training, with the first one being mandatory,” said Robert Pawliuk, the university’s associate vice-president of support and recreation services.

Drills are conducted every term, giving the team an opportunity to practice responding to different scenarios. Campus security staff also receive training to ensure that they get used to working with the crisis team members who would be assisting them in certain scenarios. “These people can tell campus security if there’s an archive that should be protected first in a flood or fire, or identify labs containing hazardous materials for first responders,” Mr. Pawliuk explained.

Dealing with natural disasters

On Canada’s West Coast, the University of British Columbia offers faculty and staff a dozen training courses on a three-year cycle. The program covers a range of topics, like what the emergency operations center does and how individuals and departments can prepare for different types of emergencies. “Staff can also request training tailored to a specific department or situation,” said Hailey Maxwell, manager of emergency management and continuity planning.

The university conducts a scenario every year covering one aspect of the emergency plan. This year they will test their emergency shelter to see how staff and facilities function when it’s established.

They also conduct two or three preparedness activities for students every year. Because the institution is in a seismic zone, they focus specifically on natural disasters. “The earthquake simulation event held annually in October is probably the most popular with students,” said Ms. Maxwell. Students are given an opportunity to experience an earthquake simulator so they can better understand how an earthquake could affect them and what to do to protect themselves.

College and university campuses are often huge, with lots of people milling around inside and out. Buildings tend to have lots of windows, hallways and rooms, often with doors that don’t lock. This leaves them vulnerable and makes protecting them a challenge. How safe people are depends largely on how prepared they are. “Being better prepared will teach people how to respond quickly in an emergency, making everyone feel safer,” said Ms. Fontaine.

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